Clogged Ears and Trump Madness

If you push just above my ear, you can feel the wax sticking to itself. It’s very annoying. I generally have to have it flushed out every few years. Now I am in a new town and looking for a new ENT doctor. In itself, the search would be a minor inconvenience. However, any small problem raises hackles when added to the constant underlying angst caused by The Donald’s refusal to accept the election results and let the country get on with focusing on the pandemic and its dire health and economic consequences. The very air around me throbs with tension and anger.

It’s not just Trump’s behavior. It is also his supporters who still have their Trump/Pence signs up in their yards ringed by American flags and illuminated by Christmas lights. Trump supporters have no priority claim to either the flag or Christmas, and the president is a dubious representative of the true meaning of either!

We are in the middle of Hmong New Year, a celebration that lasts about a month and spans the old and new years by Western reckoning. The Western New Year is just weeks away, followed by the Chinese, Tibetan, and Buddhist New Years. Whether we celebrate with bottles of Champagne, floating or flying lanterns, or fireworks, our wishes should be stated in unison: “Peace on earth, good will towards men, and spare us from the tyrants of this world.”

Killing Babies

“The Democrats support a bill allowing people to kill their babies if they don’t want them after they are born.”

We—the framing store-clerk, and I—looked at her wide-eyed and disbelieving. Generally, I would shy away from confrontation. It is frustrating and anxiety-producing at best, and a futile effort at worse. Nevertheless, this comment was just too insidious to ignore.

“I teach criminal justice; I am a former police officer. There is nowhere in this country where it is legal to kill a healthy newborn baby—nowhere,” I pronounced in my most authoritative voice.

“My husband is a police officer,” she retorted. “Besides, I heard the governor himself say he was happy to sign the bill into law. It was in New Jersey, I think, or maybe South Carolina.”

Her posture became more agitated as she scrolled through her phone looking for the evidence. The clerk kept her eyes down. A black woman who was standing nearby quickly left the area.

“There are a few states where, if a baby is born terminally ill, you have the option of not prolonging its life artificially. Surely, that must be what you heard.” I tried to sound less confrontational.

Defiant, she responded, “I saw it on the news. I heard the governor say it. I just can’t find it right now.”

“You do know that it’s possible to edit videos, leaving out critical language. Maybe that’s what you saw.” I was trying to give this woman an out. She didn’t take it. I was disturbed, but gave up and left. The clerk texted me later (she had my number from an order I had placed with her) and thanked me for trying to stop the woman from spreading such lies. The clerk said she only wanted to go home and hug her son.

I went home and pushed the crazy lady to the back of my mind, where all this hate and stupidity is filed. To my horror, my hairdresser told me just the other day that she has heard this same hateful misinformation from several of her clients. “Oh no,” I sighed. This is fake news at its most destructive. It is misinformation that pushes people to engage in extreme behavior and keeps us divided.

Now I am sorry that I wasn’t more confrontational. In retrospect, I should have looked up the truth and shot it like an arrow into the universe. Would it have helped? Maybe not, but unless we challenge the lies, we will continue to suffer the consequences. And I do mean lies on both sides of the aisle.

Memories of GG

“Children, read through this correspondence before you discard it.” The note was taped to a plastic bag filled with letters of condolence from 1954 when my dad passed, a high school yearbook, correspondence between my mom, GG, and her teen-age buddies, and some very pretty Valentine cards with our names on them as the senders that were unmistakably in my father’s handwriting. There was also one rusty button pin with the image of a football and the deteriorating. faded remnants of blue and grey silk ribbons.

The letters, correspondence from her girlfriends, dated back to 1928. She had to leave Harrison Technical High School, located in the South Lawndale neighborhood of Chicago, Illinois, to move with her mother and baby brother to Brooklyn, New York, for two operations for problems associated with scoliosis, adenoids, and severe burns to her face and neck.

The neighborhood was on the west side of Chicago and, at the time my mother lived there, it was eighty-four percent foreign born or native with foreign parentage. As Eastern Europeans moved further west or north, the ethnicity changed; now it is a Hispanic neighborhood, and Harrison Technical High School no longer exists.

The letters were from girls with names like Sadie, Ida, and Gertrude and nicknames like Shrimp, Curly, and Dubby. Last names, Rabinowitz, Celovisky, and Shitof for example, resembled a roster from an Eastern European Jewish refugee camp. Expressions like tee-hee and heh-heh punctuated gossip about parties, boys, and other girls. The letters were affectionate and hopeful about mom’s recovery and return, as well as the writers’ ambitions and dreams. 

I vaguely remember some of the letter writers, as they became life-long friends of GG’s, and their names were on the sympathy cards sent to her when my dad died. Mom survived them all, living a robust life for 99.6 years.

My brother passed on the plastic bag of memorabilia to me to peruse before sending it on to my sister. I purchased a nicer tote for the papers, but I held back the football button. I am staying with my niece, my brother’s middle daughter, whose son plays center for his high school team. I cleaned up the pin, painted over the rusting back, and glued on new ribbons in red and black, Sammy’s school colors. I’m not sure my mom was much of a fan, but I know that she would be tickled to be with her one of her granddaughters watching a great-grandson play.

Confessions of a 2020 Voter

I pushed the speaker button on my cell phone so that I could hear my daughter. “I can’t stop crying,” she said, her voice cracking. I stopped unpacking boxes; my breath became ragged; I felt the same evisceration of my gut that I felt 40 years ago when my husband asked for a divorce. “No!” I shrieked. “No, he could not have won.”

“Mom, wait. What do you think I’m referring to?”

“Biden lost.”

“No, he won. I’m crying for joy. You haven’t heard?”

A wave of pure relief washed over me. My heart stopped thumping, and I began to relax. However, I didn’t feel joy or elation We had narrowly won a reprieve, but we had not won the war. I did not vote for Joe Biden and the Democrats; I voted against Donald Trump.

While people came out onto the streets in big cities Saturday to celebrate the outcome of the election, my town was subdued, quiet, and careful not to start an altercation. Fear was palatable on both sides. Then the next day I read an article in Medium Digs by Lauren Martinchek called “November 3rd Was a Rejection of the Democratic Party,” which summed up my unease. Democrats are politically impotent and unlikely to make any real change. It is as if they are in black face and, like Ms. Martinchek, I fear for the future and the backlash of “right wing populism” that Trump harnessed. He may be gone soon, but his legacy of racism and white supremacy will still be with us.

From Russia with Love

“Hi Carole. We are doing OK so far. COVID is everywhere; nobody knows what to do. Hope we will survive.”

I woke up this morning to find this WhatsApp message on my phone, sent from a friend in Moscow—a friend who works high up in Russia’s medical establishment. We are two days out from the election, and I don’t know what I am more afraid of: COVID or Trump winning another term. A New York Times headline today stated that people are voting as if their life depended on it—and it does.

How did we get here? I think the etiology of Trump’s ascendancy lies deep within the psyche of America, a country forged on genocide and slavery and justified by religion. Put this in the context of poor national leadership, economic disparity, growing racial diversity and political power, and increasing global threats from terrorism to climate change, and you have a toxic mix triggering an acute stress response among people. (And let’s not forget the worship of celebrity.) For the most part, these responses are irrational, defensive, and hostile.

The answer: vote Tuesday as if your life depended on it—it does.

Changing Priorities in Higher Education

Almost a quarter century ago, the program I was hired to chair was riding high, ascendant, and influential. The state had named it a Program of Distinction, and money was pouring into the college’s coffers. The events of 9/11 had made police national heroes and security a national priority; the college offered degrees in both areas of Criminal Justice.

Hordes of students registered for classes that offered them the chance of a career, with no math or language requirements to graduate. The privatization of corrections facilities also drove enrollment in our Corrections degree programs.

The year 2020 arrived and, along with it, a perfect storm developed—toppling the college and promoting its fall from grace. Black Lives Matter led to the vilification of law enforcement; criminal justice reform is attempting to empty out prisons . . .private prisons, by the way, have turned their attention to detaining immigrants at our southern border. A conservative backlash against higher education in general and liberal arts in particular has devastated university budgets. My university tried to cope by appropriating the Program of Distinction funds. The other option was to eliminate programs, lay off faculty and staff, and cut research-driven release time.

The onset of the COVID-19 pandemic sealed the deal. Students no longer wanted to be on campus. Recently built dorms were unoccupied, the fancy new athletic center was empty, and no one was using the food service. Despite disparaging tweets by the U.S. president, the new American heroes replacing police are doctors and nurses.

I’m retired and out of the day-to-day fray resulting from the attack on higher education and the devolution of the program I once chaired. Nevertheless, the turmoil has not spared me. The course, Ethical Decisions for Police, has been dropped from the curriculum, so I lost my online teaching contract.  I developed the course and taught it for over thirty years. I would teach it free if the university would allow it!

I implored the new chair and curriculum committee to reconsider. At what time in our history have we needed ethics education more than now?

There’s a Tesla in the Garage: And a Madman in the White House

I found life in Cambodia rife with contradictions. Peasants who became millionaires, often at the expense of other peasants. Upscale, high-end Japanese malls and local village markets exist side-by-side and all are full of shoppers. Gated mansions overlook dirt streets and layers of garbage. Hun Sen, Cambodia’s strong man, is a heinous maniacal dictator in power since the UN elections of 1993—elections I helped to organize and run.

Now I find America the same, or maybe worse. People reasonably well off and richer have not seen their fortunes eroded by the Trump presidency. Because of COVID 19, the working poor are a little better off because of additions to welfare benefits. Nevertheless, the so-called middle class is devastated and so are those in deep poverty deprived of social services and access. 

I’m reminded of a X-Men movie where the president is allowing drug users to be annihilated by a monstrous plot of a drug queen to get drugs legalized so she could return to normal society. She was holed-up in a grotesque compound in Cambodia with Elton John. Rather than give in to her demands, he encouraged her to carry out her diabolical plans in hopes of ridding society of undesirables. I can imagine Trump seeing the pandemic as a vehicle to destroy groups hostile to his presidency since many of those same groups are those most vulnerable to the virus.

Now RBG is dead and the crazy coalition between the wealthy without a moral compass and the religious right will sacrifice any common sense or decency to keep Trump in office and another conservative appointee to the Supreme Court. Too far out … a crazy conspiracy theory. Maybe

Team Sports and Birthdays in the Time of COVID-19

Water welled up in Ella’s eyes, but it had not yet formed tears. The water-works came soon after I slid in next to her in the van. She had gone outside to take refuge from a conversation about why she wouldn’t try out for the volleyball team at her new school. At 13, Ella was unprepared to defend herself against her uncle’s persistent advice. However, it wasn’t he who had triggered the tears; rather, it was some past argument with her mother when she had quit the team at her former school the previous year.

It was Saturday football extravaganza at my niece’s house where I’ve been staying temporarily. Everyone had gathered for wings and pizza and hours of non-stop college games in a relatively virus-free environment. When only a rerun of Disney’s animated Mulan could cheer Ella up, I gladly retreated to a football-free zone to watch a movie with my granddaughter.

Ella and I cuddled up on the couch while I got constant texts from my grandnephew about how my team was faring—we had a bet and I lost.  Then, the happy birthday messages began to arrive via Messenger and WhatsApp from Cambodia and China. The conclusion of my 78th year had already begun halfway around the world, 12 hours ahead of Eastern Daylight Time. I eyed the box containing my birthday present from my eldest daughter and wondered if I could open it on Cambodian time rather than wait until morning.  In the meantime, Ella went home. She would be back with her parents on Sunday to celebrate my birthday over steaks and Champagne.

I pulled open the box and took out a familiar Amazon gift bag. My hands hovered over the bow, but I did not untie the ribbon. Instead, knowing how limited my birthday options would be during the pandemic, I decided I needed every COVID-safe sweet surprise that I could garner on the big day.

Friends on Facebook, where I have an account that I seldom use, were notified, and so there were lots of posted greetings; my email inbox, too, was beginning to fill up with virtual cards and wishes. European friends were checking in. My siblings promised to sing to me via Zoom later in the day.

I brought the morning coffee down to my bedroom to enjoy in the darkness and quiet of the new day. After my morning ritual meditation, I opened my iPhone to read the day’s New York Times headlines, but they were as depressing as ever. So I decided that it would be a news-free day, and I opened a YouTube video sent from my Swiss friend instead. It was the happiest version of “Happy Birthday” that I have ever heard. I played it several times.

I had been despondent over the lack of things I could do and the people I could see on my special day…but in the end, just being lucky enough to start a new year at my age fortified with lots of virtual wishes from friends and family around the world was pretty darn good. Life has changed with the pandemic, but love has not.

Shock/Not Shocked

Shock

I shouldn’t have been surprised when I heard a community member come before the school board and criticize the common-core curriculum, contemporary academic texts, and liberal teachers. I know about the attacks on so-called liberal academics—my colleagues and I often joked about being disappointed that we never made the conservative hit list of professors.  What shocked me was the unshakable belief on the part of some in our community that teaching truth, rather than information designed to support a particular world-view, has undermined patriotism and weakened America.

I understand the fear that, without taking pride in country, our young people and our institutions are at risk of negative influences. But pride based on misinformation is not sustainable pride, not productive pride, not healthy pride. To apply an old philosophical syllogism: All humans err; all Americans are human; therefore, all Americans err. Its simple logic. Why do we need a forgiving G-d if we do not make mistakes?  America has made its share of mistakes. We can’t know what America has done to overcome its past errors if we hide our mistakes, rather than own them.

To its credit, America has resolved and struggled to correct those errors. That is what we should be proud of; that is what will inform our children’s patriotism.

Confessions of a Former News Junkie

I’m certain that I am not the only person formerly addicted to watching the news, intensely interested in happenings around the world and at home. I woke up to NPR, its morning news preparing me for a day at the office and in the classroom. I was armed with facts about current events to discuss with students and colleagues. I kept abreast of the challenges facing our soldiers abroad and what their circumstances might mean for family members with whom I had to interact. I could talk informatively with my foreign students, and I kept up with events in countries in which I had made friends over years of travel and working for the UN.

I started my evening unwinding with a glass of wine while watching the various 5:00 p.m. cable news programs and continued through dinner right up to 10:00 p.m., when I switched to reading a good spy novel or mystery to clear my head and get me ready for a night’s sleep.

Did my passion for news occasionally result in terrible stress and anxiety? Yes, of course it did: troops invading Iraq, bombings in Paris, beheadings in the Middle East, deforestation, wildfires, tsunamis, and other assorted natural and man-made catastrophes. But my passion also helped to inform me about who needed help or donations, who needed a letter of concern, who needed a kind word.

The news informed my activism, my energy, and my humanity. It was worth some sleepless nights, fraught with fears of helplessness.

And then COVID-19 hit and, with it, nightly briefings from the White House. It was too much. I had used up the few Xanax I had stashed away for emergencies. I had given up wine at the onset of arthritis. I did not have the strength to endure watching and listening to the president, and then watching and listening to the talking news heads regurgitate the president’s outrageous performance. Even when that charade finally ended, cable news had so devolved into hyperbole and bias that it even cast doubt on my reliable NPR and BBC reports. I still trusted them, but the content was simply too disturbing to absorb. I was done! I had long ago abandoned social media; now I have quit TV news as well.

In my email inbox, I still get the daily New York Times headlines, which I quickly peruse every morning to make sure the planet is still spinning on its axis. Otherwise, I rely on friends around the world to send me text messages about anything important.

With the pandemic, I gave up binge and recreational shopping. That has been great for my wallet. Now I have given up binge and recreational news watching. That has been great for my mental health.

As insane and chaotic as the world was before Trump, nothing prepared me for this onslaught of crazy that has come with his presidency—a world where one is compelled to hunker down and hide.